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The listing agent for Lyons' house said her clients have asked that the sale be handled discreetly. [Times file photo]

Lyons' house put up for sale

By MIKE WILSON, MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 1998


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tierra Verde house that started the Rev. Henry J. Lyons' journey from rising religious leader to accused felon is on the market.

The asking price -- $749,000 -- is $49,000 more than Lyons paid for it in March 1996.

A Ministry Questioned: More coverage of the Lyons chronicles from St. Petersburg Times
The house was listed for sale about two weeks ago, said Frank Gimbel, a lawyer for Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler who co-owns the property with Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

Lyons' wife of 26 years, Deborah Lyons, ransacked and set fires throughout the waterfront home July 6 after discovering that her husband owned it with Edwards, then a top aide to Lyons in the convention. Mrs. Lyons pleaded guilty to arson and was placed on probation.

So far, Gimbel said, there have been no firm offers for the house at 255 Sixth Avenue N. He declined to say whether anyone had toured the place, which was repaired after the fires.

It also was repainted and the pool refurbished after the county cited Lyons and Edwards for code violations.

The listing agent, Pat Kelly of Coldwell Banker Residential, said her clients have asked that the sale be handled discreetly. The listing says the owners are "OOT" -- out of town. There is no sign on the lawn.

"I can't really answer any questions," she said.

According to the Multiple Listing Service, the house has a 26-foot-by-36-foot living room, cathedral ceilings, an intercom system and a wet bar. The yearly taxes are $11,305.

The listing also boasts of "beautiful water views . . . perfect for entertaining."

Not included in the deal: the gold-trimmed mirrors in the living room.

"If you want to buy it, we'll put you in it," said Denis de Vlaming, an attorney for Lyons.

It is unclear how proceeds from the house would be divided between Lyons and Edwards. Edwards did not return a message left at her Milwaukee home. Lyons declined comment through his spokeswoman.

Lyons has maintained that Edwards provided all of the funds that went toward its purchase. Indeed, it was Edwards' lawyer this week leading in the marketing of the house.

"We've been talking about listing it for months," said Gimbel. "This is no surprise."

Lyons and Edwards first saw the place in late 1995. It made an immediate impression on Edwards: She adored its lookout over Boca Ciega Bay.

Lyons obtained a $455,000 mortgage from World Savings and Loan. At the closing on March 1, 1996, Lyons and Edwards supplied about $250,000 as a down payment. Bank records show most of those funds came from the Loewen Group, a Canadian company which had made a marketing arrangement to sell funeral products to convention members.

The same day as the closing, Lyons signed a deed making Edwards joint owner of the house. Lyons was listed as a single man in those records.

Lyons has repeatedly pledged to sell all the assets he jointly owned with Edwards. "Everything," he insisted last August. The pair has sold two luxury cars -- a Mercedes and a Rolls Royce -- but the house remains their joint property.

Selling it may be difficult. Earlier this year, the federal government filed a $41,300 lien against Edwards in Pinellas County for old, unpaid taxes.

That could make it harder to obtain a clear title on the house. Real estate experts say the lien ensures that the government would recover Edwards' unpaid taxes out of the proceeds.

Lyons and Edwards are linked by more than property. They are co-defendants, too, charged with racketeering by Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors. According to investigators, Lyons and Edwards transformed one of the nation's largest black religious organizations into a criminal enterprise.

Attorneys for the pair have filed motions asking Pinellas-Pasco Chief Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer to dismiss the charges, saying they amount to religious persecution. Arguments were scheduled for Friday, but Lyons asked for a delay after one of his attorneys abruptly pulled out of the case.

A hearing is now set for June 25.

"It kind of caught us flat-footed," de Vlaming said of last week's decision by attorney Anthony Battaglia to leave Lyons' defense team.

Also Wednesday, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe released nearly 1,000 pages of documents describing Lyons' dealings with several corporations, including the Loewen Group. Lyons and Edwards are accused of defrauding millions of dollars from the Vancouver-based company.

Included in the documents is a series of heated letters between Lyons and Loewen executives.

Loewen executives repeatedly demanded an accounting of how Lyons, Edwards and other convention employees were spending the millions Loewen pumped into the partnership.

"It is very frustrating dealing with you and the National Baptist Convention," Loewen executive vice president Larry Miller wrote to Edwards on April 9, 1997. "You have repeatedly made commitments to me which, for whatever reason, you fail to comply with."

Lyons responded a week later with an angry letter to Raymond Loewen himself.

"I do not appreciate the attack on my staff or the National Baptist Convention," he wrote. ". . . it appears that your company sought to use the office of the President of the National Baptist Convention without any cost and has placed an assessment on my worth and character; to this I take great offense. I can not and will not be treated that way."

The sniping escalated in the weeks after Deborah Lyons set fire to the Tierra Verde house. Nine days after the fire, Lyons fired off another letter to Miller demanding that Loewen continue to finance their partnership.

"Despite my request to put our relationship on a more friendly basis, the tone of your letters is completely inconsistent with that," Lyons wrote, adding that the letters are "filled with so many inaccuracies that I cannot begin to address them all."

The next day, Lyons sent a letter to his staff accusing Loewen of failing to "fully live up to their contractual obligations."

When Miller learned of this letter, he accused Lyons of spreading "false and defamatory" information about Loewen.

"You have made a serious mistake," Miller wrote.

"We demand an accounting of our advances, Dr. Lyons. If you do not have the staff available, we will send in a team of auditors from our staff or an outside firm to complete the job."


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